Opinion |

Only Five Arab Women Have Ever Served in Israel's Knesset. And It's Not Getting Any Better

The long-delayed birth of Arab women’s political activism still faces major obstacles, from institutional discrimination to deep social conservatism. For local elections that's changing – but not in the legislature that governs our lives

Anwar Mhajne
Anwar Mhajne
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An Arab woman voting in the 2015 elections for the Israeli Knesset in Beit Safafa. 18 March 2015
An Arab woman voting in the 2015 elections for the Israeli Knesset in Beit Safafa. 18 March 2015Credit: Emil Salman
Anwar Mhajne
Anwar Mhajne

With the Israeli Knesset elections approaching, the question of representation is ever more central to the political debates among Arab citizens of Israel.

Even though the non-Jewish population in Israel constitutes about 21% of the total (the vast majority of whom are Palestinian - both Christian and Muslim), their representation in the Knesset at the 2015 elections was only 15% (18 Arab MKs) in total. Five men out of those 18 Arab MKs represented Zionist parties.

Even further marginalized are Palestinian women, who have, historically, suffered the worst political representation in the Knesset relative to their numbers in the population.

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Only five Arab women have ever served in the Knesset since Israel’s first national elections in 1949. This lack of representation was reflected in Israel’s last elections in 2015 when Arab women won three (out of 120) seats in the legislature. This made their total representation in the Knesset only 2.5%.

It wasn’t as if the parties specifically answering the needs of the Arab population made any great effort to ensure an equitable gender balance: Arab women were 17% of the total of Arab MKs.

And that inequity and marginalization is set to continue in these elections too. In the recent primaries held earlier this month for parties seeking to represent Arab constituents, the pickings were meager.

In Balad, only one woman, Hiba Yazbak, was elected for the second seat on the party’s list. Similarly, the Jewish-Arab party Hadash elected only one woman, Aida Touma-Suleiman, for the second seat on the list. Dr. Ahmed Tibi’s party, Ta’al, has yet to release a party list.

Surprisingly, the United Arab List (Ra’am), led by the Islamic movement, reserved seats for women in the first six seats in the party's list for the 21st Knesset, having previously excluded women from standing. But how many women will be actually represented on the list is yet to be seen. Troublingly, no women so far were elected to lead the parties.

A protest in Tel Aviv attended by Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, calling for equal rights for Jews and Arabs.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

One further surprise, and one that attracted significant controversy, was the candidature of an Arab woman, Dima Tayeh, in the primaries of the Likud party, the same party that led the efforts to pass the Nation State Law, almost universally condemned by Arab citizens as discriminatory and legislated them a second-class status.

Her candidacy led her family to denounce her y as disloyal to her people and to shun her until she would withdraw. Her attempt to run on the Likud list, which is generally antagonistic toward Arabs and whose other candidates campaign on explicitly anti-Arab platforms, mean that it’s hard to consider her a legitimate representative of that community.

It should be noted that of the current five Arab men who serve as MKs for Zionist parties, four are members of the Druze community, who commonly serve in the IDF and don’t hold the same political and national identity positions as non-Druze Palestinian citizens of Israel. The fifth is an MK for the leftist Meretz party.

For Arab women who want to campaign by legitimately representing popular opinion in their communities, which is very distant from the mainstream Israeli Zionist politics of left and right, the choice is vanishingly narrow: the few Arab and leftist parties. Those political chasms deter the majority of Arab men and women from competing for Knesset positions as members of non-Arab parties. They are subsequently forced to compete for the few seats available in a small number of Arab parties.

Arab women suffer from two major obstacles preventing their more equitable representation in the legislature that governs their lives. First of all, Arab women are part of Israel’s wider marginalization from political institutions of its Palestinians citizens, and, secondly, women suffer from the persistence of patriarchal practices and values in their own community.

The sequence of historical and political circumstances marginalizing Arab citizens politically is long, including almost two decades (1948–66) in which Arabs lived under Israeli martial law. One of its consequences was a long delay in the birth of Palestinian women’s activism and the kindling of interest and recognition by women and feminist organizations in Israel.

Residents look at the remains of homes demolished in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in southern Israel, January 25, 2017.Credit: Alex Levac

The struggle for equality and the need to confront constant discriminatory policies takes center stage in Palestinian activism within Israel. That meta-struggle has the effect of constantly marking women’s issues and voices as secondary, suspending their prioritization indefinitely.

Clearly those struggles for equality, economic opportunity, basic funding and public safety in Arab communities are critical. But many of those issues disproportionately affect Arab women, even if this aspect is far less often discussed.

According to a 2018 National Insurance Institute report, almost half of Israel’s Arab population lives in poverty. Among all Israeli Jews, the poverty rate for families was just 13.4%.

Government ministries chronically neglect Arab communities with regard to funding and resources.

The state failed to address the high rates of gun violence and violence against women in the Arab sector. Half of the women killed in Israel this year were Arab, despite Arabs comprising less than one-fourth of the Israeli population.

The employment rate among Arab women in Israel ages 25-54 rose from only 21% in the early 2000s to 35% in 2016. Despite this increase, their employment rate remains low compared to that of Jewish women: indeed, two thirds of Arab women of employment age do not participate in the workforce.

On top of institutional discrimination, Arab women face high cultural barriers to political participation within their often highly socially conservative communities. Women are exposed to high levels of domestic violence. They are also still expected to focus on their roles in the family as mothers, wives, and sisters. Since the concept of family honor is directly associated with women, being in the public spotlight and the criticism that comes with it could jeopardize that key asset.

Women attend a protest against violence against women in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

When Arab men go into political life, they don’t constantly need to be looking over their shoulder if they go against the consensus views of their community or family. When an Arab woman chooses the same political path, the price she pays for dissent is far higher: she risks losing their protection and support, making her even more vulnerable to criticism and even ostracism.

As a woman from Umm Al Fahm, I experienced resistance from my family for my interest in studying political science and engaging in political activity. It took my dad a few years to go from, "I don’t have daughters studying political science," to being proud, in public, of my accomplishments.

These societal expectations are present in the Arab community in general, but it is more prominent in more conservative geographical area such as the Triangle, the home of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement. They are more prominent among poor and less-educated families.

All of these conditions further constrain and deter women from entering elections or investing their time and resources toward improving their status in the community.

Despite this bleak picture, there is hope. Recently, due to an intensive grassroots campaign in Arab society to increase women’s involvement in local politics organized by a coalition of 11 Arab-led organizations, Arab women made history in the last round of local elections in Israel held in late October 2018.

This campaign resulted in the election of 26 Arab women to local councils, including the first Druze and Bedouin women representatives, as well as an unprecedented four female heads of political parties participating in local elections.

For this success to translate to the level of the Knesset, both Israeli institutions and Arab party leaders must invest in, and promote, women’s political participation by creating safer and more conducive environment for their participation. When women are educated, have at least minimal financial independence, and feel safe, they are more likely to run in elections. And Arab parties need to reserve more than one seat for women in their top four seats.

Moreover, the state and Arab community leaders need to sponsor and encourage grassroots campaigns to push Arab women and the Arab sector to recognize the importance of women’s participation in politics and its benefit to their families and their society, and as fully legitimate and necessary stakeholders in Israel’s democracy.

Dr. Anwar Mhajne is an Umm Al Fahm native and moved to the United States in 2011 to pursue her M.A. and Ph.D. She is currently a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Political Science at Stonehill College, MA. Twitter: @mhajneam

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